Looking back, I think the meth might have had something to do with these thoughts.
Once, after I’d been arrested attempting to break in to my relatives’ home to steal valuables for drug money, I refused to cooperate with police — instead demanding an audience with the FBI. Cops put me in a locked psychiatric ward for my own protection.
I became a meth addict despite many opportunities I had in life. I earned a college degree and had a successful biotech career. I owned a home in San Francisco, worked for Stanford University (Stanford fired me for violating an arcane Ivy-League-of-the-West tradition that you’re expected to show up for work, not hide at home smoking meth.)
Despite my fortunes, in October 2007 I’d sunk low. I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth in months. Mealtimes, I gobbled grub at soup kitchens, shoplifted from supermarkets or used fraudulently obtained food stamps to buy steaks to trade with my dealer for meth. My single-room-occupancy hotel — sometimes known as a “flophouse”— was evicting me. I was racing toward homelessness, incarceration and possibly the grave.
Instead, at rock bottom, I decided to quit drugs for good. But I discovered that just because you’re done with meth doesn’t mean meth is done with you.
Even after I stopped using, I sometimes feared the FBI SWAT team would kick down my door and send me to prison for life.
Fortunately, help soon arrived. Family, friends and compassionate people inspired me to return to society. Part of that return included giving back to my community by way of volunteering for the Red Cross and for a neighborhood political campaign. Once I began to do that, I felt a shift: Before, I cared mostly about what I could take. As I started to give, I realized it felt good. Strengthened by others’ faith in me, even though I had little faith in myself, I began to work hard at working hard.
Soon, the soup kitchen where I used to eat allowed me to volunteer preparing meals for the homeless. An officer of the San Francisco Police Department I used to dread became my 12-step sponsor to help me stay clean. The Toastmasters club where I’d once shown up for free dinner, only to walk out before the meeting began, allowed me to become a member, and after a time, miraculously, its president.
After some training, the emergency services sector allowed me to become a volunteer first responder. Me, who used to carry a loaded pistol for protection against people I thought were after me. The San Francisco Fire Department provided hundreds of hours of disaster response training, which I supplemented by earning an EMT certification.
Yet all the while, fears of the FBI dogged me. Nights alone in my room, I grappled with dark certainties the Bureau was steps away from ending life as I knew it.
As part of my self-improvement, I was taking self-defense classes, and I’d become an instructor of Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense system. I discovered one of my Krav students just so happened to be an FBI SWAT agent. I’d made him aware I participated in fire department emergency training and that I was interested in volunteering for the FBI, too. This was a big step in facing my angst.
One day after a combat cardio class I’d taught he asked me, “Ed, would you be interested in organizing an unarmed self-defense session for our team?”
That’s how, in March 2015, I finally found myself face-to-face with a cadre of real FBI SWAT team agents.
The irony was not lost on me that for over a decade, I’d been held hostage by terror, the victim of my own mistakes. Yet there I was, freeing myself by volunteering for the bureau. I was helping the very people — the SWAT team — I had feared most.
It was a day of strange turns for me, including when one of the agents, a team lead, offered to sponsor me if I wanted to apply to the FBI Citizens Academy, a selective volunteer program that aims to strengthen relationships with minority groups, faith-based organizations, civic groups and others. It is a six-week series of classes and activities to give community leaders an inside look at the FBI. If anyone needed a greater understanding of the role of federal law enforcement, it was me. I applied.
I was turned down. This happened two more times, but I persevered. My fourth application was finally accepted. (I later learned those rejections were probably the result of simple administrative processes.)
In the days leading up to the Citizens Academy, I waited for the FBI’s email saying my acceptance was a mistake. The email never arrived, and the academy began. Along with my fellow academy-goers — mostly tech workers, public safety and community leaders — we took classes to learn about the FBI. One sunny Saturday we even went to an outdoor tactical range to observe demonstrations, including a bomb disposal.
But the best part? When I received my diploma on May 15, 2018 — signed by FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and accompanied by his letter requesting that I, as a Citizens Academy alumnus, serve as an ambassador for the bureau. Me, a former meth addict who once lived in the underworld of drugs and thievery, an FBI ambassador.
It was hard to believe, but it gets even better.
Six months later, I was invited to speak at a screening of “Chasing the Dragon,” a film created by the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration to combat the opioid epidemic (each day in the United States, more than 130 people die from overdosing on opioids). The screening was in November 2018 in Palo Alto, where my old employer Stanford is located. Both the mayor and the chief of police were in attendance. I spoke about my drug abuse, the root causes of addiction, and why I believe positive interactions between addicts and police can help make a dent in the addiction epidemic.
I am now 49 years old, and the next chapters of my story are still to be written.
But today something monumental is happening: At the D.C. headquarters of the FBI, Wray will present me with the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for work I’ve done helping people reintegrate into society after being released from prison. It’s connected to work I do with Defy Ventures, a nonprofit that provides entrepreneur and employment training to current and formerly incarcerated people.
The award recognizes 57 Americans each year, one from each FBI Field Office and the Criminal Justice Information Services Division. Past honorees have educated the public about Muslim culture, founded LGBT community centers and given urban youth alternatives to gangs.
I’m beyond grateful to the FBI and many others for taking a chance on me and helping with my transformation. What I’ve learned on my path from meth addict, through mental health challenges and finally to community servant is that when people in need are given the right help, we are capable of giving back. And we want to.
Today, one of the least likely people to be receiving a community service award from the director of the FBI will indeed receive it. And let me tell you with extreme certainty: If someone like me can come this far, in your life, anything is possible, too.
Ed Kressy is a writer, speaker and volunteer whose work serves addicts and people with criminal histories. He lives in San Francisco.